Rational discussion about educational outputs, cost effectiveness and ease
of operation seem to go out the door. The technologies are ordered
and installed and lauded over by salespeople, administrators and
technoholics and then paraded into the classroom where teachers,
with little or no understanding of the pedagogy of this technology,
are then expected to produce educational miracles.
Too often the intellectual property right that technologies carry seems to be the only justification they need in order to be purchased by schools. The similarities between the story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' and the purchasing of technologies within schools is frightening.
Choosing the Emperor's clothes
DO not misunderstand the message here: The problem has many aspects varying from the lack of training provided for teachers, the degree of difficulty of operation of some of the technology, the insistence on using the most sophisticated technology when something simpler would do the job better, the decision making process that schools move through, the lack of integration of technologies, the insistence on the purchase of objects rather than infrastructure/ networks and the list goes on. But that we must integrate technologies effectively is not being challenged here.
Education Week on the web (http://www.edweek.org/sreports/tc/tchome.htm) is an online magazine that routinely conducts special reports into different aspects of the business of education. Their most recent and very comprehensive report deals with school reform and the information age, and comes to some very interesting conclusions. The study investigates five main areas:
• How technology improves achievement.
• The need for adequate computer training for teachers.
• Technologies making administrators more effective.
• Technologies making it easier to connect the school with the community.
• Political strategies for education technology.
Some introductory comments from the study:
"Tens of billions of dollars have been spent to equip the nation's (US), schools with calculators, computers, printers, videodisc equipment, satellite technology televisions, software, and connections to the Internee."
"Yet, research on the effectiveness of educational technology offers, at best, mixed results. Some applications have been unquestionable successes; others have yet to prove their mettle."
"Thus, the real question for educational technology is not 'Does it WORK?' Rather; it's 'When does it work and under what circumstances?'"
One of the researchers, James Kulik from the Centre for Research on Learning, who has reviewed over 100 studies on computer aided instruction goes on to comment that
computer aided tutoring packages seem to show the same increases in learning as individual tutors. But education has progressed and although there is a place for some 'drill & skill' this is no longer the focus.
"Inspired by the research of cognitive scientists, educators began favouring classroom environments in which students take charge of their own learning, learn to think critically and analytically, work collaboratively, and create products to demonstrate what they have learned. By putting learning in the hands of students, the 'constructivist' model turns on its head the old style of schooling in which a teacher stands in front of a room and lectures.
"Computers and other kinds of classroom technology, it has become increasingly evident, can help bring about that transformation. But. while there is no shortage of anecdotes on schools that have successfully used technology to reshape teaching and learning and to raise student achievement, the definitive, large-scale studies that make the case for these newer, more integrated uses of technology are harder to find and less clear-cut."
The study goes on to examine several success stories that encourage students to use the technology to develop problem solving, group, and communication skills.
"National Geographic Society's Kids Network is another technology-based program with data to back up its effectiveness. An independent study of the project involving 36 California schools found that students who participated in the network outscored students in traditional classrooms on their grasp of some scientific concepts. The Kids Network students also outperformed control-group students on questions unrelated to their unit of study, such as a task that asked test-takers to interpret bar graphs of children's ice cream preferences."
The scene looks good but the use of technology in the classroom varies so much and, as is usual, the good teachers that derive their objectives from sound educational pedagogy use technology effectively in the classroom. Bad practice cannot be disguised via technology, the technology merely accentuates it and the students are worse off than if they did not have the technology at all. "People often think of technology as doing old things better," says Kaput, a math professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. "But we are doing something previously not thought possible."
This may well be the case as teachers firstly identify what the various technologies do, and do well, and then develop teaching strategies that maximise what these technologies are good at doing. To date this has been a very ad-hoc arrangement as the technology was quite limited in what it could do and how fast it could do it.
With dramatic improvements in technological performance of the machinery and considerable developments in the quality of instructional software that can run on these technologies, it is time that some serious research was done looking at just what these technologies can do and the outputs that they can effectively increase.
"Even simple technology, such as word processors to help in writing instruction, has proved its worth in the classroom. But again, the circumstances must be right.
"Where technology is used wisely and where the teachers are given the right kinds of support and training and the right kind of equipment, then they are able to actually implement some of the best theory and practice regarding the teaching of writing," says Stephen Marcus, a co-director of the South Coast Writing Project and a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
It is without doubt that the technology can provide a stimulus to students and they enjoy using it but it still depends greatly on just what they are using the technology for. It is quite conceivable that students, spending endless hours doing word processing, may well enjoy their work more but if the quality of the output is going to be judged merely on the colourful graphics used then a more cost effective tool may well have been a pen and paper.
"Students are more willing to do more editing, to spend more time reviewing their text and improving it. But to provide a computer and think that students' writing will somehow magically improve--that's just wishful thinking," Marcus adds. Computers and word processors that are poorly integrated into the curriculum might even distract students from learning, says Barbara Means, a researcher with SRI International in Menlo Park, California.
"I've seen kids spending a whole period illustrating a colour cover of a report, pixel by pixel, when they haven't even done the report yet," she says.
"Teachers also have to be careful not to let the fun quotient overtake serious learning. A 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey found that the most frequent use that 4th graders make of computers is to play games. For 8th graders, playing games is the second most common use, behind writing papers. The survey does not specify whether these activities took place at home or at school, however."
These are quotes based on observations that we, as teachers, should be mindful not to reproduce in our own classrooms. We are presently in the midst of a dramatic shift both in mind and the technological possibilities that rule now on offer within the framework of education. The key skill set for the 21st century is language, the ability to communicate effectively in a diverse range of genres, from E Mail to the fax, from web pages through to CU SeeMe videoconferencing, from the phone through to oral presentation. The range is enormous and those that can manage these and use them effectively will be successful within this new landscape. Many of our students are simply not prepared for this environment. The skill set they are being provided with is the skill set for the 19" and 20" centuries, but running in and providing technologies in an ad-hoc fashion just exacerbates the situation.
Where to from here?
Many schools purchase the technology then ask "what can we do with it?" This standard process must be reversed by asking these three questions.
1. What are the educational outputs that this technology will be producing? It should not require a doctoral research programme to find them!
2. Whatever technology is purchased is it so simple to use that a complete idiot could have it up and running in a very short time? This criteria reflects the lack of time teachers are given in order to integrate technologies and not their level of intelligence!
3. Thirdly, is the technology cost effective; ie, the educational outputs produced must justify the purchase and ongoing costs?
But before all this a school must know its mission and the educational objectives it wishes to meet and be focused on fulfilling them.Any purchase or action must be in line with this mission and the objectives set .
That technologies have a place in the educational environment is beyond debate. That the internet, computers, satellite TV, the phone, fax and videoconferencing will be increasingly used by administrators, teachers and students is in no doubt - BUT as to how to integrate them into a manageable package which is both affordable and delivers quantifiable educational outputs, this is not so clear... and here lies the new frontier in education.
This is complicated by the fact that no one package will meet the diverse missions and objectives of each school but there are some fundamental keys which I will briefly allude to and deal with in greater detail in a later issue.
• The common vehicle which will deliver software, information, Email, phone, fax, audio and video conferencing as well as in-house data transfer is the phone line. The impact of this one trend is already producing global changes to the way we communicate, do business and educate each other.
• The implication of this is that all schools require a way to distribute this
information and these tools around the schools ie a network of
some form. The availability of these tools now makes the education
dream of independent and interdependent learning a possibility
and with this comes a new role for the teacher. No longer the
key information conduit to information, a teacher's role will
evolve into one of directing and facilitating the information
so that new knowledge can be constructed.
• This new role will require an unparalleled mind shift and enormous teacher
up skilling. The technologies will slip into being accepted as
tools. Talented teachers will be even more valued.
• The expectations of the community will now be radically challenged. Schools will need to communicate this transition to parents and other stakeholders.
The time frame for all this... we have about seven years at the
absolute maximum. By the year 2005 we must have worked through
this, the greatest challenge that education has witnessed. We
must have have done so effectively and efficiently and along the
way a whole new generation of technologies will have evolved and
be deemed essential and need integrating 'on the fly'.
The years of educational change that we have just moved through will be nothing in comparison to what lies ahead. Our attitudes to change will determine the success or otherwise of this transition but the fundamental key remains: good teachers will always generate good results and their value will only increase.